Pesach begins three weeks from tomorrow, and maybe some of you are considering “keeping the Pesach” this year. Maybe you have some anxiety about what exactly that means, or how to do it, or whether you’re going to “do it wrong.” What is keeping the Pesach?
In Exodus 12:15 we read:
Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses.
At its simplest, “keeping the Pesach” means 1) eating matzah and 2) removing leaven. In some Jewish contexts there are clear guidelines for how to remove leaven from one’s home, and you either follow them or you don’t. But here at CBI there are many gradations of practice. I don’t see “keeping the Pesach” as a binary. I see it as a spectrum.
At one end of the spectrum, you go to a seder or two, but otherwise your dietary practices are unchanged that week.
At the other end of the spectrum, you remove all leaven (and items made from the five leaven-able grains) from your home, and eat only natural foods (fruits and vegetables don’t need a hechsher, a kosher certification marking) or foods certified as “Kosher For Passover” by a trusted rabbinic authority, and you eat on special plates that you reserve only for this week of the year, plates that have never touched a leavened grain.
There’s a lot in between those choices. For instance:
1) You might choose to avoid bread for a week. Just leavened bread. If you would look at it and say, “Yep, that’s bread,” then don’t eat it. In that case, you might still eat pasta (after all, spaghetti isn’t bread). You might still eat breakfast cereals made from grain (they, too, are not bread.) But your diet would shift enough that you would notice, all week long, that this is a special time.
2) You might choose to also avoid not only actual bread but also bread-like things, from bagels to English muffins. Even sweet muffins, like blueberry or pumpkin muffins, are leavened — so you’d avoid them too. You might choose to avoid beverages that have fermented, like beer or kombucha. In this case too, the pastas and the cereals might still feel okay to you, but the class of foods you’re avoiding would be a larger one.
3) You might choose to remove from your home all things made from the five grains that our tradition considers “leaven-able.” (That’s wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye.) If water spilled into a container of flour and you left it there, the flour would eventually grow its own sourdough starter, which means that flour is “leaven-able” — it is capable of becoming leavened under the right circumstances. Anything made from leavenable grains, you would remove from your home for a week.
4) You might choose to eat special “kosher for Pesach” pasta… or you might avoid it because it looks like and acts like “regular” pasta, and you want your diet this week to feel different.
5) No matter what your dietary practices are, you might choose to get a set of special Pesach dishes, to use during that week only, and to remind you that this is a special time, a week that is set-apart from ordinary life.
6) You might choose to eschew kitniyot (corn, rice, beans, and peas — which have long been part of Sephardic Pesach dietary practice, but used to be forbidden in Ashkenazic practice, though today they are accepted in Reform and Conservative communities)… or you might embrace them wholeheartedly.
All of these are legitimate Jewish ways of experiencing Pesach. (My own family of origin spans that spectrum from one end to the other.) My invitation to you is to choose consciously what you want your Pesach practice to be this year… and to pay attention not only to the contents of your pantry, but also to your heart and soul. Whatever practices you take on should (ideally) serve the purpose of awakening you to the festival and its meaning (at least some of the time.)
The Jewish renewal practice of hashpa’ah (spiritual direction) invites us to ask: where is God for you in this? (If the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, try: meaning, or holiness, or love.) How does this experience connect you with something greater than yourself? How will this practice renew your heart and soul — how will it align you with holiness — how will it open you up to transformation?
The haggadah teaches that it’s incumbent on each of us to see ourselves as though we, ourselves, had been freed from slavery. Pesach comes to teach us that we can experience liberation from our narrow places, from life’s constraints and constrictions. Pesach is about leaving slavery and taking the first steps toward covenant. It’s about taking risks, leaping when the time is right, venturing into the unknown even though it’s unknown. It’s about crossing the Sea and finding ourselves in an unfamiliar wilderness on the other side. It’s about new beginnings, and spring, and trust, and hope.
The word chametz (leaven) comes from the Hebrew l’chimutz, “to sour or ferment.” In one Hasidic understanding, chametz represents the internal puffery of ego. Chametz can mean all of our old narratives, our baggage, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works. Chametz can mean our own sour places, the old psychological and spiritual and emotional “stuff” that we need to clean out and throw away in order to be ready to experience freedom. Whatever you’re doing with the literal chametz in your pantry, ask yourself: what is the internal chametz I need to throw away before Pesach begins?
Whatever your Pesach dietary choices are this year, may they bring you more fully into awareness of the holiday and its meanings, and may they open you more fully to transformation.
- Leaven (Hametz) and What it means to keep Kosher for Passover, My Jewish Learning
- A Guide to Eating on Passover, Union for Reform Judaism
- What Foods Will Make Passover Meaningful for You? Jane Herman, URJ
- How a Reform Jew Keeps Passover, Rabbi Barry Block
- Passover, matzah, dialectics, posted here in 2006
Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.